Reflecting on the plight of migrant workers and COVID-19 in India (part 1)

This two-part blog from the GLOW Hub in India which is currently undertaking a project that examines private sector contribution to the SDGs[1] in India, reflects on the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the situation of migrant labour in India. The first part of the blog draw attention to the everyday challenges brought upon by the lockdown in the lives of migrant workers, while the second part reflects on what these challenges mean, significance of the idea of Living Wage and the role activists and research(ers) can play.

COVID Lockdown and the Migrant Labour Crisis in India

Authored by Ramanuj Mitra and Devyani Hari, Centre for Responsible Business (CRB), India

Contrary to the recent argument by some that, “Coronavirus doesn’t care if you are rich or poor”[2], the poor in India, especially the urban poor have been most adversely affected and are battling for even the taken for granted basic necessities and in many cases their survival. Ever since the lockdown was announced by the government on 25th March 2020 in India, millions of migrant workers have lost their jobs – unemployment rate stood at 27.11% (3 May 2020)[3]. While the loss of jobs is not unprecedented during such a crisis, as most micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in India depend on day-to-day operations to generate revenue, the scale of displacement and the sheer number of migrant workers affected (stranded without food and shelter) is deeply troubling for one of the largest economies and democracy in the world. Thousands of migrant workers, including among others from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh have been stranded without jobs. Unable to pay rent for their accommodation and food, they have been wanting to travel back to their villages and home states. Here they have faced with yet another hurdle – unavailability of all forms of public transportation owing to the lockdown.  With no means to travel these workers have set for home on foot. Heart-wrenching news reports have brought to light the plight of migrant families walking hundreds of kilometres with all their belongings.

Since the first week of lockdown towards the end of March 2020, across all 718 districts of India, steps have been taken to distribute meals and rehabilitate stranded workers in designated centres. This has involved not only government-led efforts, but initiatives and action by businesses of all sizes, communities and even individuals. District administrations have acted as nodal agencies working on aid and other disease control measures. But given the nature of the crisis and the magnitude of its impact, it has raised fundamental questions about disaster preparedness and social security, particularly of migrant workers. The pandemic is an externality – the lessons learned from this experience must be put to good use to battle future crises. Experts across many domains believe that the pandemics and other disasters will be the new normal.

Most of India’s working population, about 90%, are employed informally[4].They work mostly as daily-wage labourers and contractual workers in factories paid on piece-rate basis. Even those employed under the Government of India’s wage and employment  related schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) only make enough to sustain on a day to day basis – they don’t have enough savings to see them through during tough times. Unemployment and social security benefits are largely absent. Migrant workers face even more problems as their ration cards[5] are not valid in their location of employment – despite the government’s effort to make one ration card for the whole nation, its implementation has been a challenge. Lack of digital literacy and general awareness of government schemes created further obstacles for the workers. Some state governments introduced nominal cash-transfers and other benefits for the stranded workers, but many of these require online registrations. Many workers have been unable to take advantage of these schemes owing to their inability to access and fill the required forms online[6].

There has been some response to the crisis, primarily focused on alleviating the immediate problems faced by the migrant workers. The authorities as well as the businesses and civil society organisations have sprung into action. Numerous factory owners converted their factory floors, warehouses etc. into temporary shelters, allowing workers to stay back and meals are arranged every day. In the National Capital Region (Delhi and its surrounding areas), many government-run schools have been converted into distribution centres for meals, not just for migrants but also for other categories of destitute workers.

Many firms (for example those producing apparel) adapted their processes to produce masks and other PPE, and were thus allowed to run during the lockdown, enabling them to employ workers, who would otherwise be unemployed. Many of the leading global commodity brands have stepped up their efforts to mitigate problems in their value chains. While few textile and apparel brands resolved to stand together with their value chain actors, many of them initially reacted by cancelling orders to protect their balance sheets. Following a backlash from different actors, including unions and NGOs, several of the leading brands are showing stewardship and honouring their contracts with MSME suppliers and also releasing their pending payments.

Such initiatives and efforts have improved prospects for migrant workers, who can now hope to regain employment with the supplier factories of international brands and retailers. There are also instances of some very encouraging practices where firms have focussed on the welfare of their workforce, including skilled migrant workers. These businesses have gone beyond the act of provision of food and shelter to support migrant workers, who would usually be paid on a piece-rate basis with partial payments despite stoppage of work. They are also supporting the emotional well-being of workers by facilitating constant communication between them and their families. This has turned out to be a win-win situation as workers have been safeguarded against the crisis while business continuity and skill retention has also been ensured.

In addition to employment contracts and workplace practices, other areas requiring attention have also emerged. A concerted push towards digital financial inclusion (preceded by digital financial literacy) has become critical. Service providers like banks/financial institutions and technology providers would have to ensure all relevant information is available in local vernacular languages. Migrant workers who do not have Aadhar Card[7]-linked bank accounts are unable to access benefits like cash transfers from the government. Schemes like the Jan Dhan Yojana[8]  must be renewed to make sure no worker is left without a bank account. Also, a national database (Aadhar-linked) must be created for informal workers – a Bill on this matter is pending in the parliament[9]. Even though formalization of the workforce may take decades, building such a database will enable the authorities as well as the civil society to identify and reach out to the most vulnerable people in the country. Changes in the Public Distribution System (PDS) are necessary – and the one ration card valid across India should be implemented at the earliest.

At the time of writing this piece, numerous initiatives are run by organizations and individuals across the country. Despite various efforts to support migrant workers, mass scale reverse migration is in all likelihood inevitable once the lockdown is lifted. The uncertainty, lack of information and extreme emotional turmoil is likely to cause migrant workers to re-evaluate the often-meagre benefits of migration and this will have an impact on industry, economy and society at large. Government agencies (state and local), businesses, and civil society organisations need to collaborate more to generate trust and hope for these workers if the industry/markets are to bounce back. When and how that will happen are questions that still await answers.



[3] amid-covid-19-pandemic-cmie-6395714/

[4] the-works/articleshow/73394732.cms?from=mdr

[5] A card issued by government in India, showing an individual’s entitlement to certain rationed goods 

[6] Centre for Responsible Business (CRB) stakeholder consultations in Panipat, Haryana, India.

[7] Aadhar is a 12-digit unique identification number issued by the Government of India that serves as proof of identity and address in India

[8] Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) was a financial inclusion scheme launched by the Government of India in August 2014 to ensure that every household had at least one basic bank account. This would help them access pensions, benefits transfers, insurance, etc.

[9]Economic Times. the-works/articleshow/73394732.cms?from=mdr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *